Kansas can’t ban telemedicine abortion, judge says in first key ruling since August vote

Jeff Roberson/AP

A Kansas judge has blocked enforcement of a state ban on telemedicine abortions, the first significant abortion-related court ruling in the state since voters in August rejected a proposal that would have upheld the ban.

Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson approved a temporary injunction the day before Thanksgiving that prohibits enforcement of a ban, which lawmakers have approved multiple times the past decade.

Watson’s order comes in response to a Kansas Court of Appeals opinion in May that overturned a previous decision by the judge not to issue an injunction against the ban.

While the order wasn’t unexpected, given the appellate court’s ruling, it comes after Kansas voted down an amendment to the state constitution that would have almost certainly allowed enforcement of the ban after years of legal challenges.

The Kansas Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that the state constitution includes the right to an abortion and required restrictions on the procedure to clear a high bar of legal scrutiny. On Aug. 2, voters overwhelmingly rejected the amendment, called Value Them Both, that would have have overturned the ruling and given the Legislature the power to set abortion policy.

The amendment took on outsize national importance as Kansas became the first state to vote on abortion access since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal right to an abortion in June.

“This decision will further open up abortion care in Kansas at a time it’s urgently needed. In this post-Roe world, telemedicine can make the difference in being able to receive abortion care or not,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

Northup said the decision “paves the way for Kansas abortion clinics to expand services to women in remote, underserved areas of Kansas.” Northup called telemedicine a “pivotal tool for the future of abortion care.”

The Center for Reproductive Rights has been fighting the Kansas ban in court on behalf of Trust Women, which operates a clinic in Wichita that offers abortion services. Rebecca Tong, co-executive director of Trust Women, said in a statement that telemedicine access “will go a long way to easing the strain on our reproductive health care systems in the state.”

In the run up to the August vote, proponents of the amendment had framed the measure as a way to ensure the state’s existing restrictions and regulations on abortion would continue. They warned that the 2019 Kansas Supreme Court opinion set a standard of legal review for abortion-related laws that would eventually lead to courts blocking current limits on the procedure.

Some saw vindication of their warnings in Watson’s order.

“On Wednesday we were sickened to watch another commonsense abortion limit be blocked by a judge after a law was challenged by the abortion industry, which consistently puts its own profits and convenience ahead of women’s health and safety,” Kansans for Life, the state’s leading anti-abortion group, said in an email message to its supporters.

After the U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing states to ban abortion, Kansas has become an increasingly pivotal access point for the procedure in the Midwest. Several states to Kansas’ south and east — including Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas and Arkansas — have banned abortion, according to a compilation of state laws by The New York Times.

For instance, Planned Parenthood in June opened a new clinic in Kansas City, Kansas. Abortion providers have previously told The Star they have received increased calls from out-of-state women but could not meet the demand. Kansas’ limited number of clinics, combined with restrictive laws on abortion, meant more patients sought care in New Mexico, Illinois and Colorado, they said.